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Enough of the ‘lessons of defeat’ – Can we learn some lessons of victory please?

Posted on 11 June 2015 | 5:06am

Desperate times call for desperate measures. On the back of big defeat must come big bold ideas for how to turn setback into opportunity. Some will be little more than the stuff of fantasy. Others may have the grains of possibility within them.

So let’s start with fantasy. Last night, back from a short and inspiring trip to Norway and Denmark, which stood in contrast to the long and uninspiring trip through UK politics of late, I had a big bold idea for Labour.

I am afraid that it does – bear with me – involve Scotland leaving the UK. It also involves Wales leaving the UK. But then Scotland and Wales will join Norway and Denmark, and maybe a bit of Northern Germany – there will be a vote between Hamburg and Edinburgh for capital – and we create a new country called the United Progessive Archipelago. I thought if the Scans were to miss out on the capital at least UPALAND sounds Scandinavian enough.

As the designer of this new country I feel that perhaps I should be King but then as a lifelong Republican, this would be an anti progressive stance. Instead we will have an elected executive based in the new Parliament which will be part of the underwater city  to be built halfway along the tunnel – funded entirely by the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund – linking Scotland and Norway.

The Presidency will rotate between the five parts of the federal structure we will be creating. In fact, you know what, capital city is a bit anti progressive too. The capitals can rotate too. Yes Cardiff, you shall have your day, but please accept English as the main UPALAND language. It is too much to expect Norwegians and Danes to learn Welsh given they all speak fluent English from the kindergarten days. Also English will remind the former UK countries of an important part of our history. I met Adam Price, creator of hit Danish TV series Borgen, in Copenhagen and, Shakespeare alas no longer with us, he will be the official chronicler of the trials and struggles as this great new country is forged.

Oh ok. Yes, as my former Downing Street colleague Tim Allan said yesterday when I raised this new idea ‘in the old days I had a number to call at this point to summon in fresh medication.’

But why did the impulse come? Well first it is hard to escape the conclusion that, living in England, I am living in a largely conservative, non progressive country, and I do not really want to live in one of those any more. Wales is Labour. Tick. Scotland is not Tory which is not as good as being Labour but it is better than being Tory and I am hopeful of persuading Nicola Sturgeon and Co that though they want independence from Tory England, they would embrace unity with the United Progressive Archipelago especially as the Norwegian Wealth Fund – you can get an app by the way (this bit is not fantasy) which reveals in real time how many millions it is adding to the billions – has made such economic hay out of oil.

Now Norwegians among you may note a snag here and indeed Danes may warn me there is a possible snag just days ahead – namely that Norway is currently Tory, whilst Denmark has a general election a week today and Social Democrat leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt, if the polls of the last couple of years are to be believed, ought to be dead and buried.

So why did I come away from Norway and Denmark so inspired, an re-energised by progressive politics and politicians?

Let’s take Norway first. Well, I got to see 16-year-old football wonderkid Martin Odegaard play in the flesh and I could see immediately we have a new cross between Messi, Scholes, Giggs and Dean Marney (look it up) on our hands. Martin will be captain of the UPALAND national side, we will aim for World Cup victory under the new FIFA in 2034 (you see how big I am thinking here,) and having given up my rightful role as Monarch, I will be team manager.

Back to reality. What I loved about Norway was the answer of Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre when I asked him how he intended to win the next election. Often at times like this, a private chat over breakfast, the politician comes back to a question like that with smart tactical ideas, a good slogan and news of the hiring of a hotshot foreign advisor.

He said this. ‘There are five big issues and give big themes for me and we need to build a campaign and an argument around them.’

– population growth. Oslo alone will grow from 600,000 to 800,000 and that will bring new opportunities for new business investment but it will also mean new schools and hospitals and a new way of dealing with and winning a progressive argument on immigration.
– ageing. How do we see this as an opportunity as well as a threat to traditional welfare models? How do we develop the concept of the family amid demographic change?
– urbanisation and the fact that more and more people will live in towns and cities and what are the questions that arise for the future of our rural areas and our agriculture?
– technology. The waves of change of late have been so powerful and we can expect the pace of change to be maintained. How do we use that for better educational and industrial performance?

– finally he said his personal passion was climate change and we had to win the argument that there had to be huge change to the way we live for us to meet that challenge which he also believed to be linked to the other four challenges above.

When he had finished I just put down my knife and fork and said thank you. Thank you for being a political leader who sees election campaigns as being about big themes requiring big ideas and big solutions.

He, in common with leaders I have met in a number of countries since the election, said he could not understand why the UK campaign was so small and so parochial. ‘You didn’t even debate Europe and now you are having a referendum?’ t think British people would be stunned if they knew how closely other countries followed our politics – I even had a Singaporean taxi driver asking me about Labour’s Edstone when I was there a fortnight ago. They look to us because our politics and our campaigns often shape theirs. Not this time.

Now don’t get me wrong. As I learned from the meetings with his strategy team and his deputy leaders later, they do the detail of campaigning too, not just big picture. But they were striving, two years out, to get the strategic building blocks in place. This is something that I am afraid Labour did not do with clarity or consistency. The Tories had two planks to their strategy – economy and leadership. We did not rebut their attacks on the first and so allowed Labour falsely to be painted as the cause of economic calamity after a decade of growth and prosperity which ended badly not because of spending the Tories supported or bank regulation they said was too strong, but because of mainly American bankers none of whom would vote for a left of centre party if you doubled their bonus.

And on leadership we were behind through the whole Parliament so that when the polls started to show a minority Labour government propped up by an SNP Ed Miliband said he would not even talk to, the Tories had a brilliant tactical storm into which to launch their economy and leadership fireworks. ‘You may not like us. But what is a better form of government? One led by someone who has now done it for five years? Or a minority government led by someone many of you consider to be weak propped up by a tough Scottish woman who wants to tax more, spend more, borrow more?’ Conservative England rose to answer.

But on both of those planks of the Tory strategy we helped put them in place. I like Ed personally but I am afraid the many among the public never saw him as a Prime Minister and though he campaigned well we never got the right economic or electoral strategy in place. A good campaign cannot be called a good campaign without a good strategy.

So now – bear with me any Danes who may be reading, I am coming to you shortly – we have to choose another leader. I for one wish we were having a leadership election at the end of the debate about our loss not as a replacement for it. But there we are and here we are.

I will vote for somebody, of course, but I’m not going to back anybody publicly. Whoever wins I will offer support and advice if it is wanted, as I always have. But if in two or three years time it is obvious from all we see and hear from the public that the new leader is not winning, and it is obvious we are not going to get close to winning an election, I will not bite my tongue and I will encourage others not to bite their tongues and I will happily lead the charge to try to replace whoever is leader. As I said to the Times for the series they are currently running on why we lost and where we go now, it is not complicated. You need a good strong leader, a clear compelling strategy that speaks to the reality of people’s lives, you need a great team and you need to hunt them down and inspire the best to want to join you, you need innovation and you need resilience and you need to fight like your lives depend on it.

Which brings me to Denmark. Two years ago when I was there everyone told me my friend Helle was going to lose. Six months ago they said she was still likely to lose but things were turning a little. This week she was ahead in most of the polls and momentum was with her.

Now polls, don’t we know it, can be wrong. But the momentum point is important. And where did it come from? It came from strategy. She made a speech at the New Year which laid out big strategic themes and a plan to roll them out. It came from resilience. She has been battered by her opponents and the media and she just keeps going. It came from authenticity. It took a long time for the Danes to realise that ‘Gucci Helle,’ as she was dubbed for so long, is a lot more than a pretty face and nice clothes. But nor was she going to stop wearing nice clothes and taking care of how she looked because of a lazy insult thrown her way. And it came above all from the right political positioning. She sees  New Labour positioning and Blairite politics combining enterprise and compassion not as ‘toxic’ but as the way to fight and win the power you need to put your compassion into action. We hear a lot about learning the lessons of defeat. It is time to start learning lessons of victory and for all our faults and any mistakes TB and his team made, a three in a row winner might be the place to start.

Helle could still lose. It is close but her main opponent Lars Lokke Rasmussen is uninspiring and mistakes he has made in this Parliament are coming back front of mind. The system is complicated however and it depends not just on how she does – and even her enemies say she is doing well – but how smaller parties do. But if she does win it will be because she deserves to because she made the right calls politically and strategically. I am not sure Labour here can say the same.

So as for the next leader and how the party approaches the next few years, frankly we have to toughen up about what you need to do to win.

As I say in the Times today, we have now gone through the last two elections with deep down many of us thinking we couldn’t win, telling each other we couldn’t win then telling the public we can or kidding ourselves that we could. We’ve got to become as ruthless as the Tories and stop pretending that it’s a bad thing to say that if you’re in politics you have to want to win more than anything else because if you don’t win you end up where we are now – powerless to do anything for the people we claim to speak for and who we know are going to have five years of crap ahead, possibly more. It is evidence of the ludicrous mindset of some of our people that somehow we should look at the most successful election winning leader we ever had as a problem. I am all in favour of learning lessons about defeat. But there are a few lessons from victory too.

The next leader is going to have to be big and bold, inspire the next generation, make the weather, foster talent and find a way to get the big strategic questions right. Rooted in our values but not afraid of new ideas, new people, new ways of doing things.

There will be some who think the idea of someone like me publicly saying before we even have the new leader that we should try to oust them if they are failing is daft or disloyal. But it is not. Politicians are fond of everyone else in top public sector jobs being subject to regular assessment and review. So why not the leader of the opposition ? In my view the next leader should embrace this approach and embrace the idea of a confirmation process in the run up to a general election. It could be a massive opportunity. If the next leader turns out to be good and look like they can win, then great, they get confirmed in a big moment of renewal and energy before the run in to the election. And if the debate shows the party thinks the leader is not up to it, perhaps because we have had had three years of the public telling us so – and they are the boss by the way – then off they go. Sorry but there is it. Football managers have to deal with it. CEOs have to deal with it. If leaders fail, they go. It’s the real world and it is time we got back into it.

So I would love it if the contenders came out and said what is self-evidently true: ‘if I get the job we won’t necessarily know for sure if I can do it well and become real PM material, because it is a massive step up, so let’s have this confirmation process in place down the track and watch me show you I can do it and relish the chance to show it.’ And if they get challenged by someone better and lose then so be it. I am a big believer in unity but not in collective denial dressed up as unity.

This could be a massive opportunity for a good leader and an important fail safe if we don’t get one.
Also remember that David Cameron is going to go. The Tories will have a new leader in this parliament. That is going to give them the chance to be party of change, to have new energy, direction to make the weather again, and we could be rumbling on, grumbling about the new leader but then going out and telling the public things are ok really.

Here is another thing — people said Ed performed much better later on than earlier. He had a good campaign. But imagine if that shift had taken place a year or so earlier in a really open and challenging debate which forced him to pin down and and defend basic strategic positions. He could have risen then. Or he could have fallen.

But having spent the first third of my adult working life covering Labour defeats as a journalist, the next third helping Labour win by doing what you need to do to win, I am not going to sit back and spend the rest of my life watching us lapse into a wretched comfort zone that sees one defeat follow another. The candidates need to see the election as their job interview. But the real interviewers are the public because ultimately only they will decide if someone is up to being PM. we would be wise to bear that in mind at all times. I intend to do my best to make sure we do. We are saying to the public: ‘This is the person we think you should be your next Prime Minister.’ That is a big choice to make.

One of the reasons I wrote the book on WINNERS was to set out the case for the defence of winning as a great objective but also because I was so frustrated that a lot of the things you have to do to win were not really being done. I was fine about Ed’s team saying they wanted to do things differently to New Labour. But what I am not fine about is mistaking doing things differently with not doing the blindingly obvious you need to do to give yourselves a fighting chance of winning. We cannot make that mistake again. If we do, we risk extinction as a winning political force.

Good luck to Jonas. Good luck to Helle. And long live UPALAND. The capital shall be called STRATEGY. The national anthem shall be a bagpipe version of ‘Things Can Only Get Better.’

  • Amusing piece Alastair with some solid hard truths in it. I’m just back from a very different part of Europe – Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro. There are lessons for Labour there as well. I am a firm believer in both the unity of the United Kingdom and in the benefits of a united UK being an active member of the EU. So I hope to see a far greater international perspective from whoever succeeds Ed Miliband. Not “Them and Us” – just “Us”. There are lessons in Copenhagen, and in Zagreb!

  • Ehtch

    I have refrained from saying this, but stuff it – Ed Miliband distancing himself from SNP was a HUGE mistake. The biggest one. It just reinforced to everyone, all across the UK, that Labour was suspicious of the SNP as well, even though they mostly stood on the same ground. It was a chance to work with them to hopefully rekindle feelings for the union. But that’s gone by the way now, it’s too far gone now, and very quickly too in the last month.

    Main strategy should be increasing non-financial money making ventures. When the Coalition pulled that loan to Sheffield Forgemasters in 2010, within days after the GE, it made me go spare. But it symbolised their next five years. Money making from financials is going to reduce fast within the next few years, due to even more faster technological communication, so then we will be stuffed, since the UK for far too long now has become a one trick pony. Agriculture, science and manufacturing is not a hobby, it is a basic. All else follows, including corrupt money shuffling.

    And have I posted this what I did for Stephen Kinnock MP and Helle Thorning-Scmidt PM a month back? Well I have now. Good luck to her – sounds as if she needs it.

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  • Mari

    As a former LABOUR Canvasser but avid supporter I have been shouting about Ed Miliband for five years and have even written to you Alistair, Jim Murphy, Douglas Alexander, Harriet Harman and Andy but nobody listened. Instead the careerists and corrupters took over the party. I worked for New Labour at Labour HQ during the Blair era an everyone was equal. I AM BITTERLY DISSAPOINTED because I wrote to everyone mentioned here and warned you over the past two years what was being said on the doorstep by voters. I was even ousted from canvassing for local Labour in Kensington who are corrupted also. I reminded all of you then that the TORIES changed their leader during their time in opposition and after losing two elections. BIG DEAL they said to the rest of us, WE WILL KEEP CHANGING until we find a leader capable of getting us into POWER. Cameron is wet blanket but Ed Milliband was dripping wet….It is such as shame that now all we hear from wonderful men such as you, Peter, Jim and many others is the old chestnut ‘should have, could have, wished I had’… I totally agreed with you last week when you said you were considering a separate party. PLEASE sign me up for that because I don’t think we will be in with much of a chance with the current runners, Harriet Harmon for now is the best option but has ruled herself out…..unless you can produce a miracle and bring back the real Labour candidate THE OTHER BROTHER, lets take on the backstabbing comments and jokes and simply respond with BIG DEAL TO THE TORIES!!!!!!!!

  • Alec Lever

    Alastair, There’s still hope but little time; see what you can do.

    Why Keir Starmer should lead the Labour Party

    No declared candidate, apart from JC,has shown any clarity of understanding of why we lost, of vision, policy or inspiring view to make Labour a viable alternative to the Tories. They are well
    meaning but defensive politicians unwilling to fight for Labour’s and the TUC’s record. E.g. we didn’t leave a ‘Mess’, the Banks did. As Janan Ganesh in 29/5’s F.T. put it, “With the Opposition endorsing Conservative policies, this is what political hegemony looks like” (Austerity for debt reduction is the disguise for the Thatcherite wealth transfer attack on the State and Unions – Part II.) No more ‘Tory-Lite, Red Tory’. Be authentic. The country can’t afford for us to lose again.

    Will the membership vote Corbyn on policy? Right message, wrong voice. Michael Foot déjà vu?

    KS has not said he won’t run; only that he feels he lacks political experience but colleagues have plenty. He is a ‘clean skin’ when politicians are not trusted by the electorate to tell the truth.
    He has no baggage, no constraints.

    KS’s heart is in the right place. His well balanced, ironically witty maiden speech said: “The Human Rights Act has heralded a new
    approach for the protection of the most vulnerable in our society, including those in care homes, child victims of abuse and of trafficking, women subjected to domestic and sexual violence, those with disabilities and victims of crime.

    “It will be those in low pay, those in poor housing, those with physical
    and mental health needs, the vulnerable, the put upon and the bullied in StPancras and Somers Town, Regent’s Park, in Gospel Oak, in Haverstock and across my constituency who will be the losers if we abandon the guarantee of equal rights for all.”

    He would relish coolly cutting the Bullingdon Boys to pieces at the Despatch Box.

    He is someone who has done ‘proper jobs’ successfully.

    He opposed the Iraq war.

    His humanitarian principles are unimpeachable.

    No scope for Osborne, The Worst Ever Chancellor, and Murdoch to make an issue of leadership.

    He is Box Office with a great back story. Increased Frank Dobson’s majority with a 6.8% swing to a 52.9% share despite Natalie Bennett getting 12.8%. He’s good on a soap box too.

    It’s still Clinton’s “The economy, stupid”. Get it growing and the wish list’s affordable.

    KS is a competent manager who can convincingly argue the alternative to austerity and that few are paid what they’re worth. Growth cuts up credit cards, pays down debt, frees up choices.

    He is credible on moves to create an ‘Equal Justice’ legal system when there is clearly one law for the rich to exploit and an unaffordable one for everyone else. Scams abound.

    His forensic mind can take on the Banks whose alumni are now running the Treasury.

    Attack, oppose; expose Tory ideologues vs society. Put them on trial for economic incompetence.

    Who better than another Keir to win back Scotland? Holyrood & London next May, GE 2018?

    Authentically Labour, he can bridge to the Tory suburbans who respond to a law and order and growth ticket when their party is letting them down. They’ll benefit from a 5% increase in the wage share of GDP which will also reduce the threat of the un-policed poor going burgling. Entrepreneurs can’t profit when their customers have no spare cash.

    His K gives him international stature and experience makes him culturally sensitive.

    Attlee, Thatcher and Blair were all lawyers.

    We won’t win London City Hall unless we look like forming the next Government as 9 of the 10 GLC/Mayoral elections were won by the party that won the next GE. [The only exception was 1981, won by Ken L before Michael F lost post Falklands in ’83.]

    KS gets seven wets from marginals to cross the floor/ abstain, wins a confidence vote and a GE in 2018 before Osborne can reflate and lie about recovery again.

    PUT THE CASE TO HIM! (and 33 of yourmates). Why wait for 2020?

  • Dave Branwood

    Bang on the money. Again. We need to take a leaf from the Tories and the ruthlessness they displayed when ousting IDS. Ed was always our IDS. From that first painfully awkward embrace with his defeated brother to the trip off the stage, to the Ed Stone, he was our IDS. We can’t afford to pick another.

  • KDouglas

    This blog post was around 5 am. Doesn’t AC ever go to bed?

    I agree that Labour has to be much tougher about what is working and what isn’t. It’s also a fair point that Ed Miliband improved during the actual campaign, but by then it was too late. John Prescott doesn’t like the idea of telling it like it is – I don’t really know why, because both he and Alastair have Labour’s best interests at heart.

    If a new party had been got up by Charles Kennedy, I might have joined it. I’d certainly be up for a centre left consensus, because people who want the Tories gone can’t be that far apart (and the dead hand of Clegg is no more).

  • Ian Young

    Following John Major’s victory the pointy head analysts and political commentators had crunched the numbers to inform us how it was near impossible for Labour to win the next election. Like Labour party members they over-complicate politics; if the voters like your leader more than the other person you are on your way to victory. A winning strategy and trust in policies flows from convincing leadership. Once Tony Blair became leader and the Tory party started speaking to itself droning on about the EU, the next election was a forgone conclusion. And it won’t take the public three years to make up their minds about the new leader it’ll take three weeks. If gains aren’t made in 2017 council elections and there is an emerging leadership contender then he or she should go. Foot and Kinnock were up against big beasts like Thatcher and Jenkins not Farage, Bennet and the most lightweight PM in living memory (Sturgeon is in different league though). And yes its the economy stupid but no-one would quote this if it was Al Gore and not Clinton that said it.

  • Gillian C.

    That’s got to be one of the weirdest blogs you’ve ever written AC!

    Interesting as it was, when you wrote about Scotland and Wales leaving the UK, I could hear Maggie’s voice (gawd help me) saying ‘no no no’ and another of her phrases also sprang to mind.

    The one where she said ‘you can’t buck the market’ only on this occasion I’m thinking, you can’t buck the geography.

    We are an island and it should remain as a United Kingdom.

    Let’s face it the powers that be will do whatever the hell they want to do anyway, so I ain’t gonna worry about it too much.

  • David Williams

    Alastair, I respect you a great deal, but you are too much in denial on the reasons for the crash.

    Yes it was caused by a financial crisis triggered from the US, but UK banks, bankers and banking system were all in on the game. Our banks needed bailing out; there are other countries that were not affected to the same extent (Canada for example).

    The fallout from the crisis was bad in the UK for a number of reasons, some of which are: 1. The financial sector was a major generator of tax revenues which reduced significantly. 2. UK consumption and growth had been fuelled by private debt, so spending in the economy reduced when credit dried up and people realised the good times were over. 3. We were already carrying a reasonably large national debt which restricted from for government stimulus (at least in the eyes of the coalition).

    Financial sector regulation; public spending levels, private sector debt are all things the Labour government allowed to get in this position. Now I don’t for a minute think a Tory government would have had us in a materially better position pre-crash (with the exception of the level government spending, which I think would have been lower, if not materially so), but your assertion that the UK’s problems were solely down to US bankers is way too simplistic.

    To the main point of your article, really agree with the big themes point, but the policies for addressing them need to be right too. For me, Ed was on the right side of a number of big issues, but his policies for addressing them turned me off.

    For what it’s worth, my big themes would be:

    1. Britain’s place in the world (EU membership, the union, foreign policy etc.)
    2. The world’s place in Britian (immigration, multi-culturalism in society, foreign investment and ownerhip)
    3. Inequality (fairness in the distribution of wealth)
    4. Productivity in our economy (it’s shocking; the biggest economic issue we have, and completely ignored in the election)
    5. The age gap (not only the ageing population, but also the problems facing the young population, skills, jobs, housing costs, etc).

  • Tim Dwelly

    Spot on Alistair. I would have liked to see more of Dan Jarvis – something about him makes me think he might be the one

  • Mike Bradbury

    Brilliant !!!

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  • Michele

    Here we go again with something named ‘Queen’s Birthday Honours List’, why does the poor woman have to put up with it being described as hers?

    Why is she exploited to endorse decisions made by MPs and business leaders? I doubt she’s able to refuse any of their choices but is the target re choices/inclusions that the public disagree about.

    Let’s get it described properly..

    • Dave Simons

      Better still Michelle – abolish the institution of monarchy and she and the rest of them will be able to enjoy the lives that we enjoy, free of such silly trappings as never having to attend a job interview!

  • SleepyCat


    Not an easy thing to stand up and say that the emperor has no clothes – but better than watching a naked emperor lose an election. Very glad to hear that you’re willing to do this if necessary!

  • Ehtch

    Ac beth iw “Upaland” yn y Nhgymraeg ac yn yr Albanwyr Gaelisch Ali? Llanbenia, yn y Nhgymraeg? Stephen Kinnock has got some interesting things to say in this interview he volunteered to do,

  • ZintinW4

    Not sure about the new country idea, would only support it if Tranmere were in the Premier League.

    Totally agree about the leadership issue. The big if is if the Tories survive the Euro campaign, they may self destruct to Labours advantage.

    We need resilience and we need ambition. We also need the courage to change leaders if we’re not going to win. Even bigger than that we need Al in Parliament.

  • Gobannian

    Absolutely right about the leader issue. It should be built into the rules that there is a confirmation vote ahead when we can see what they are like. German parties do not decide who their candidate for Chancellor will be until about a year before the election, which allows people to show off their skills.
    Making it part of the rules would prevent discussing the issue being a matter of loyalty.

  • Gobannian

    Actually, I would give my vote to any candidate who promised to introduce a rule requiring a confirmation election in 2017 or thereabouts.mat least, I would if I believed them.

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